Academic journal article Persuasions: The Jane Austen Journal

Choosing Spinsterhood: Enacting Singleness in Persuasion

Academic journal article Persuasions: The Jane Austen Journal

Choosing Spinsterhood: Enacting Singleness in Persuasion

Article excerpt

READERS LEARN FROM Emma that '"[a] single woman, with a very narrow income, must be a ridiculous, disagreeable, old maid! the proper sport of boys and girls; but a single woman, of good fortune, is always respectable, and may be as sensible and pleasant as anybody else"' (91). The single woman in question is Miss Bates, the foil to the heiress, who declares that she need never marry. Miss Bates falls prey to the degradations of spinsterhood that Emma avoids by reneging on her anti-marriage stance and following the path dictated by the bildungsroman-marriage plot. Emma features the most overt discussion of old maids in Austen's work, and Miss Bates is the most famous of Austen's spinsters--but the heroine of Persuasion, Anne Elliot, is the most overlooked.

Anne is not a spinster by the novel's close. She does, after all, finally reunite with Wentworth. Austen introduces Anne as an old maid, however, through her family's definition of her as past her prime and unmarriageable. Sir Walter believes, "All equality of alliance must rest with Elizabeth" (6). The reader meets Anne as the middle child, whose opinions are ignored and whose appearance is plain, the consequence of an "early loss of bloom" (30). (1) Though no one attaches the label "old maid" to Anne, she performs the spinster's function in her social circle. In Amanda Vickery's words, "she is on the shelf at twenty-seven" (137). From the outset, Austen consciously evokes the conventions of spinsterhood in describing Anne and, in doing so, challenges the stigma against old maids. Persuasion shows spinsterhood to be a construct imposed on unmarried women and, more radically, that spinsterhood can be a position adopted by choice. Before she recovers her bloom and reunites with Wentworth, Anne chooses to enact spinsterhood and in doing so destabilizes the contemporary notion of spinsterhood as an identity and a permanent state of being.

Anne's eventual marriage has blinded most critics to the fact that she plays the role of spinster for most of the novel. The notable exception, Jean B. Kern, includes Anne in her article investigating old maids in women-authored novels. She recognizes that "Anne Elliot, the heroine, is twenty-seven--that dangerous age for the unmarried female--as the novel begins" (210--11). Laura Fairchild Brodie has also focused on Anne's singleness, though she treats Anne as a widow, claiming that Anne's sense of loss following her abortive relationship with Wentworth is akin to the death of a spouse: "she enters the novel as a metaphorically 'widowed' heroine--a woman who has lost her fiance and who now shares the company of widows.... For Anne, memory has succeeded anticipation.... [She] finds consolation in a widowed devotion to the past" (699). Brodie situates Anne within an eighteenth-century social context bent on fitting her into a binary identity position. British culture of the time understood women as either married or unmarried: wives or widows, maids waiting to marry, or spinsters doomed to their fate by an inability to attract a husband. Brodie thus places Anne into the socially acceptable position of widowhood. Aligning Anne with widowhood, however, seems flawed; it denies Anne the agency she has exercised by rejecting Wentworth, even under persuasion. In Persuasion Austen problematizes contemporary notions of spinsterhood by refusing these binary categories and placing Anne in the exceptional position of choosing singleness. Anne has already intentionally eschewed marriage by the beginning of the novel, having rejected proposals from both Wentworth and Charles Musgrove; instead, she performs behaviors characteristic of spinsterhood by withdrawing from courtship rituals in favor of acts of service.

Austen wrote Persuasion just after the eighteenth century, the period in which the spinster figure developed her stigma. The term "spinster" had risen relatively recently from the literal occupational meaning indicating the non-gendered employment of spinning thread, becoming in the seventeenth century a neutral term for unmarried woman. …

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